Last month was the hottest July in recorded history and true to form, it was sweltering in the days leading up to my reservations for a bikepacking trip to the Kettle Moraine State Forest. I’d managed to reserve a sequential pair of backpacking shelters along the Ice Age Trail, which is why you see the word ‘hikepacking’ in the title of this piece. The ice age trail does not allow bikes, so you have a mandatory short hike to each of the shelters, but they’re worth the walk. The Kettles have three of these shelters along the thirty miles of the ice age trail in the southern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. I’ve done a few overnight trips at Shelter No.3 before, but I’ve never strung two of the shelters together as I did on this trip.
The bike that I’m currently testing is a Trek 1120 adventure bike. It comes equipped with a front and rear rack that make this bike ready for just about any bikepacking trip. I’ve been thinking about this three day, two night trip from the moment that we found out that we were getting an opportunity to review the 1120.
For whatever reason, I’d always thought of doing the trip from north to south, but as luck would have it, the shelters were only available in the opposite order. So the trip would start at the John Muir mountain bike trails with the first night at Shelter No. 3. As I mentioned, the weather had been hot and humid leading up to the start of the trip. The forecast for day one called for a high of 97F with 90% humidity but also predicted that a cold front would arrive sometime late in the day and change both the temperatures and humidity for the better. I delayed my departure for as long as I could into the evening to try to let the heat of the day pass. It had stormed the night before, adding to the humidity and shutting down the southern loops at the Muir trail cluster, which limited the amount singletrack that was available. I geared up in the shade and displayed the WiDNR permit for parking my truck there for two nights and took the Rainy Dew trail into the woods. The Rainy Dew got its name due to a mix-up in the DNR sign shop. The name was supposed to be Rainy Day trail but somehow got changed to Rainy Dew.
It wasn’t long into this pretty short singletrack route when the wind kicked up a few notches and the temperature dropped ten degrees! Gnomes be praised! (and perfectly timed cold fronts). The Rainy Dew dumps into the Blue/Green/Orange loops near the Roller Coaster section which leads to the Bermed downhill curves called Bermuda. Just after the apex of the first right-hander is an emergency access road that’s usually pretty overgrown with vegetation. That’s the path that goes to the shelter. You cannot ride your bike on this overgrown doubletrack because it’s against WI/DNR rules regarding bicycle access. So I dismounted and pushed the bike the half a mile up and over three steep climbs to get to the shelter.
Here’s an interesting thing about pushing the Trek 1120 up a hill. Most bikes with rear panniers are a pain in the leg (you thought I was gonna say ass). The rear pannier gets in the way of your leg and plays ping pong with the pedal with your shin playing the role of the ping pong ball. So I’ve stopped using rear panniers until we started reviewing the 1120. One of the product managers at Trek told me that Travis Brown worked on the development of the rack and bag holsters on the 1120 and designed them to mount at an angle that allows the bike to be pushed uphill without interfering with your leg. Pedals still take their best shot at your shins any chance that they get but the panniers don’t get in the way.
The hike up to the shelter had plenty of downed trees and was pretty overgrown. When I got to the shelter, the first thing that I noticed was how much graffiti that had been scrawled all over the shelter.
On a more positive note, someone had left a nice pile of kindling and firewood for me and there was a stiff breeze blowing, which usually helps keep the bugs at bay. All three of the shelters at Kettle are situated upon the tops of hills with nice views. They have a fire ring, picnic table and the two that I stayed in had steel eyelets mounted to hang four hammock tents inside the shelter. No. 3 is one of my favorite spots. It has a big old oak tree that frames the overlook and it’s somewhat nestled into the hillside, so it blends into its surroundings nicely. I enjoyed a nice little campfire and sang the song of my people along with a local pack of coyotes.
Day two turned out to be an incredibly beautiful summer day. Relatively low humidity and high temps in the ’70s with little fluffy clouds! I made coffee and had some breakfast with a symphony of songbirds on nature radio.
Eventually, I packed up and hiked back out the way that I had come back to the top of Bermuda, where I could legally mount my bike again and head north towards Shelter No.2. The 1120 has a dropper post, which beyond the well-known ride benefits, makes it a lot easier to swing a leg over a fully loaded bike. I rode the rest of Muir and headed out onto the Connector trail.
I knew that it wouldn’t take me all day to get to shelter No. 2, so I decided that an afternoon swim might be just the ticket. This is where having a little local knowledge comes in handy. I’ve been visiting and riding the Kettles since 1986 so I’ve been in and around just about every nook and cranny that the area has to offer. My detour to palmyra added a few miles, but I got some writing done and enjoyed one of my favorite summer activities (swimming in a lake). At this point, I could have ridden the road to the State Forest HQ (just 3 miles away) but I chose to stick to my plan and backtracked to the Connector Trail and on to the Emma Carlin Trail system.
Emma Carlin is the gnarlier side of what Kettle has to offer. The Trek rode impressively fully loaded. It wasn’t long before I was out on the road and onto my way to the State Forest Headquarters and a short mandatory hike up to shelter No.2.
I don’t want to go all “dad” on anyone here, but I know that you’ll be tempted to ride your bike up to shelter No. 2. This hike is much of a more ridable type of terrain than the hike to Shelter No. 3. Please walk your bike, so the cycling community can avoid any user conflicts and show that we can respect the land manager’s regulations.
Shelter No. 2 is another beautiful location. Unfortunately, nobody had left a neat pile of firewood for me, but I went and gathered a modest supply of downed branches and I’m glad that I did because it actually got a little chilly when the sun went down. it got down to 53F overnight and I ate breakfast wearing just about every piece of clothing that I had along to stay warm.
On the last day, I hiked down to the Forest HQ and filled all of my water bottles for the ride back. I started the day with the mantra “just do it” (something I learned from Heather Steljes) and proceeded to enjoy the hell out of some sections of the Emma Carlin Trails that I had helped to build some years back. The trip through memory lane lead me up to the Overlook, where the Connector starts.
The Connector is one of my favorite trails at Kettle. I enjoyed the ride and the miles seemed to fly by one road crossing at a time. I refilled my bottles with a water cache that I had stashed at Bluff Road and after a few more miles and some of Kettle’s signature, punchy climbs found my way back to the John Muir trails and back to where I’d started.
I felt pretty lucky considering the weather had turned on a dime the moment that I hit the bush and that the wind had kept Wisconsin’s State Bird (the mosquito) at bay for the entire trip. My ever-changing kit of review bikes and bags performed admirably and that made me want to get out again as soon as I could. It turned out that I didn’t have to wait for long!
I’ll be testing the Trek 1120 through the end of Summer. There’s some newness on the horizon that we can’t mention quite yet, so stay tuned for more fat and plus bike fun amigos!
For More information about the Trek 1120 adventure bike visit – https://www.trekbikes.com/us/en_US/bikes/adventure-touring-bikes/1120/1120/p/22005/